Commentary on 1 Kgs 17:1-6
“Today we begin reading the story of the dramatic man of God, Elijah (9th century BC). The king of the northern kingdom, Ahab, married the pagan, Jezebel. She introduced pagan cults. Elijah, chosen by God to battle paganism, announces a lengthy drought as God’s punishment.” (Vatican II Missal)
For the next three weeks we are returning to the Books of Kings. We will be reading from both the First and Second Books. The readings centre mainly on the great prophet Elijah and also on his successor, Elisha. Also featuring prominently will be King Ahab and his notorious wife, Jezebel.
What is told here probably belongs to the earlier life of the prophet and the author takes up the story where it fits into his overall narrative. It is the description of a serious drought which is seen as a punishment for the introduction into Israel of the worship of Baal. We are in the reign of King Ahab, who had married Jezebel, a woman from Sidon, and it was through her influence that the king introduced the worship of Baal. He even built a temple to Baal in Samaria.
All we are told of Elijah’s origins is that he came from Tishbe in Gilead. Gilead was a region in the northern area on the east side of the Jordan. The exact location of Tishbe is not now known. He was being sent by God to oppose vigorously, by word and action, both Baal worship and those engaged in it.
Elijah begins by proclaiming solemnly to King Ahab in the name of the Lord that, until God declares otherwise, there will be a drought in Israel. The reason is clear: it is a punishment for the idolatry of God’s people.
The proclamation is made in the name of “the God of Israel, before whom I stand”. This is a technical phrase which indicates someone who stands in the service of a king. Kings and priests were specially anointed to serve as God’s official representatives and spokespersons with the responsibility to see that their people remained faithful to the covenant and in the service of God. Since the days of Jeroboam the northern kingdom had not had such a priest, and its kings had all been unfaithful.
Now in the great religious crisis brought on by Ahab’s promotion of Baal worship, the Lord sent Elijah (and after him Elisha) to serve as his representative (instead of a king and priests), much as Moses had done long ago. In fact, the author of Kings highlights many similarities between the ministries of Elijah and Moses.
“During these years there shall be no dew or rain except at my word,” the Lord says to Elisha. This form of punishment is significant because, although Baal was seen as a god of fertility and lord of the rain clouds on which that fertility depended, he was powerless against Yahweh’s decision to withhold all rain and moisture. This will be dramatically emphasised and proved in the scene which brings the drought to an end.
Symbolically, too, Elijah is told to go away from God’s land and hide on the east side of the Jordan. By this gesture God indicates that he is withdrawing from his people, leaving them isolated from his word (which comes through the prophet) and from his blessings. The absence of the prophet only confirms God’s separation from his people. Such symbolic acts by prophets are common in the Old Testament. The location of the wadi Kerith is not certain. Possibly it was a gorge formed by one of the northern tributaries to the Yarmuk River.
At the same time, while God’s people in the promised land go thirsty and hungry during the drought that afflicts them, Elijah will drink from the stream in the oasis and, miraculously, ravens will bring him bread in the morning and meat in the evening. The Lord’s faithful servant was miraculously sustained on the other side of the Jordan (like Israel in the desert in the time of Moses) while Israel in the promised land was going hungry – another clear message to Israel of its vain reliance on Baal.
The fact that Elijah was sustained in a miraculous way apart from living among his own people also demonstrated that the word of God was not dependent on the people, but the people were totally dependent on the word of God. It was not God who had gone back on his covenant promises to his people. It was they who had violated the covenant by turning their back on him and cultivating the idols of Baal.
Sometimes we think that God has abandoned us but, if we look more closely, we will find that it is we who have moved away from him. Our hunger, too, for the most part is a spiritual hunger. When we are close to him, we can find his presence and his love in every experience that we have.